Updated: 6/19/06; 10:54:27 AM.
Dan Small Outdoors
... all the news about Outdoors in Wisconsin and Beyond

Sunday, April 10, 2005

(This is a continuation of the story started in yesterday's post. Start there, then come back and read this one.)

Make that two turkey hunters...

As we packed our gear away and stripped out of clothes that were way too warm now that the temperature had risen into the 60s, Don said, "I'm hooked!"

"Wait 'til we get a bird," I said. "You got a season's worth of education already this morning--not from me, from the birds--but it gets better."

I had some business to attend to in West Bend, and Don and Mitch wanted to see how the other hunters had done, so we parted company and planned to regroup later at the Kountry Keg. There, sixteen mentors and their hunters would gather to swap stories and let the moms and the local paper photograph the successful hunters. This is the second year the North Shore Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation has held a hunt for novice hunters under the Department of Natural Resources' "Learn-to-Hunt" program, but I guarantee it won't be the last.

NWTF is a strong supporter of lowering or removing entirely the hunting age in states where there are still restrictions. They support events like this as one way to introduce more first-timers to hunting. There's no better sport to do it with than turkey hunting because of the interaction between hunter and quarry, the time of year, and a number of other factors. Turkey hunting is not a piece of cake, but it's a sport where coaching works well, where there are often multiple opportunities to see and take game, where the game taken is of considerable size and where the rewards can be far-reaching.

Mitch Heupel carries his gobbler out of the woods after his successful hunt.

I got back to the Kountry Keg around 3:30, where there were already six birds hanging. One was a dandy 4-year-old with one mean-looking hook, a second broken spur and a short beard that must have frozen off last winter. Hunt organizer Mike Keefe told me Don and Mitch had gone back to set up a screen blind where we had planned to hunt this morning.

"Are they planning to hunt this afternoon?" I asked.

"They can't shoot a bird without you there," he said.

I jumped in the truck and headed back to our property.

Halfway there, Don called and said they had seen three birds, one right where we had been hunting all morning. When I got there, the decision to give it one more try was a no-brainer. I have to be in Green Bay Sunday afternoon, and both Mitch and I were eager to get a bird Saturday, although Don had said earlier he was looking forward to hunting again today.

We talked about where to set up for a quick hunt. Don offered to stay behind and let me and Mitch give it a try, so I asked Mitch which of the two locations he wanted to go to.

"Well, if we go after those two birds that went down that way, we might not be able to call them out of the woods. I think we should go where we were this morning."

"You got it," I told him. "Let's go."

Following the east-west fenceline that ran along a ridge, we quickly covered the 200 yards to the field corner where we had sat in the morning. I had brought a decoy, but decided not to set it up.

As we approached the corner, I yelped on the same Brett Gorzalski cherry-on-poplar box call I had used most of the morning, just to see if a bird might be close by. It's always risky to call before you are set up, but we didn't have much time, so I took the chance.

There was no answer, so we sneaked down the wooded slope to withing 5 yards of the field and set up on the biggest tree around, a basswood about a foot in diameter. This was going to be a quick, close-in encounter if it happened at all, and we would rely on stillness and surprise to get it done. Sitting a few yards inside the woods helps a great deal when birds approach from a field.

Once settled, I started calling alternately on a Rohm Brothers slate and Brett's box. Within five minutes, Mitch whispered "There's a bird in the field." A moment later, he said "It's coming this way. I think it's a hen. I don't see a beard."

Over his shoulder, I could see a turkey walking steadily toward us, as if on a string. I stopped calling, since it had pinpointed our location. "Let it look for us," I figured. It looked like a hen, but I tried hard to put a beard on it. I figured Mitch would be happy to shoot a jake at this point. On it came, clucking inquisitively with each step.

When it reached the woods edge, it turned its head one way, then the other, clucking out a turkey "where are you?" It was so close, Mitch blocked my view of it. I slowly eased around him and confirmed what he had clearly seen. As I did, the hen picked up my movement and trotted back into the field, then flew a hundred yards or so to our west.

"Good," I thought. "We're better off with her out of the way."

"You could have shot that bird," I said to Mitch.

"I could have?" he asked, with a touch of letdown in his voice.

"No, I mean if it had been a tom, you could have shot it."

"Yup," he replied.

After a long day in the field, I knew my hunter was ready.

I barked out a couple yelps on the box and a turkey gobbled back. With the ventriloquy that gobbles seem to generate, I thought it came from the hills just south of us. At any rate, it sounded close enough to keep us in the game with minutes to go.

I yelped again. He gobbled again, from the same location, I thought.

"There's two more birds in the field," Mitch whispered.

I love this kid's sharp eyes!

"Where are they?" I asked.

"Straight across the field, coming this way. They look big."

I yelped again and heard a gobble from the hills reply. I leaned slowly forward and looked north across the field over Mitch's shoulder to see two dark birds walking toward us along the field edge.

"If we had sat in that blind you and your dad set up, you'd be shooting one right now," I said.

I yelped again, and one of those two birds gobbled back. Every now and then a bird reaches a point on his death march where you just know you are going to get a shot. These toms reached that point about a hundred yards from us, and my heart started banging in my chest like a rabbit that wanted out of a cage. If Mitch was excited, I couldn't tell it.

When we sat down, I had showed Mitch two openings he could shoot through, both with just a light screen of burdock and raspberry canes. I stopped calling and hoped the birds would continue along the edge and pass in front of us, where I would try to cutt them to a halt in one of the openings. A tricky manouevre, but worth a shot. If they didn't stop where we wanted them to, at this range Mitch could safely shoot through even the small saplings that screened most of the edge.

"Safety off," I whispered. I didn't want either of us to forget that when it came time to shoot. "Don't shoot if they are close together. Wait until they separate."

I wondered if his idea of close together and mine were similar. Did he have any idea how tight his pattern would be at 15 yards? Probably, I thought. He and his dad had shot at several targets the afternoon before.

But, turkeys being what they are, these toms stepped into the woods 20 yards short of our position and started up the hill toward us. Mitch's gun was pointed at the first opening, 30 degrees to the right. I had to do something and fast, so I started cutting on the box, which I held out of their sight behind Mitch.

The birds stopped. One shifted back and forth nervously, just as the hen had done before she flew. The other went into a half strut.

"Do you have a shot?" I whispered.

"Not yet," Mitch replied.

"Cutt, cutt, cutt," went the box.

Nervous Ned started moving back toward the field, while the strutter puffed up again. That's when Mitch made his move. He swung his shotgun toward the stationary tom. I hit the box call hard and the bird's head shot upward.

"Take him!" I hissed. The "boom" came so fast it startled me, and the tom lay flopping in the field.

I jumped out and ran to him, but I could have taken my time. This bird was going nowhere. Meanwhile, his nervous partner ran partway up the hill, then flew out across the field when I yelled. He'll have a story to tell the rest of the gang.

Mitch joined me as the bird reflexively beat his wings and expired.

"You're a heck of a hunter," I said. "Congratulations!"

"Thanks," he beamed.

The bird's 3/4-inch spurs indicated it was a two-year old, which suggested the toms that had all the hens were older birds. Two-year-olds are usually cooperative early in the season. These two were especially so.

When Don reached us, he savored the moment, as Mitch and I told him how the birds had come in, how Mitch had spotted them, how he had waited until just the right moment and then decisively made his move.

We took a bunch of photos to freeze this moment for posterity, then walked back to the vehicles. Mitch proudly carried his shotgun slung over one shoulder and his bird, safely tucked into a Sling-It carrier, over the other. Don couldn't stop grinning.

"This is better than my first deer, my first pheasant, my first duck, all combined," he said.

"Contagious, isn't it?" I said.

Mitch and I were elated, but glad it was over.

"What are you going to do tomorrow morning?" I asked.

"Sleep late," he said.

Don wanted Mitch to ride back to the Kountry Keg with me and show his bird to the gathered hunters. En route, Mitch was quiet, as he had been most of the day. I asked him if he would do this again.

"Oh yeah," he replied. "Oh yeah."



We were the last hunters to bring in a bird, and Mike Keefe was surprised to see we had killed one. I reiterated the 20-minute-cooperative-bird theory, and several other mentors nodded. When you do everything right all day long and nothing happens, you begin to second-guess your set-up, your calling and the birds themselves. Then, a bird (or in this case, a pair) walks right in like he's supposed to, and it's over in minutes. Eleven hours and minutes.

Don's older son, Wes, had been hunting all day with John Roden. They had seen plenty of birds, but similar to our early experience, they had been unable to close the distance. Don planned to hunt with John and Wes this morning. I'll let you know if they got one.

Meanwhile, Don is planning to mount Mitch's bird.

"I hope you have a lot of room for trophies," I told Mitch's proud mom, Paula.

I have a feeling he's not going to stop at one turkey.


10:31:27 PM    comment []

A picture named psmitchslingit1-350x copy.jpg

13-year-old Mitch Heupel with the 23-pound gobbler he shot last Saturday, while hunting with his father, Don, and me on a Learn-to-Hunt program.

If you've ever hunted turkeys all day, had several opportunities to kill a bird, and then finally connected as the clock ticked down to quitting time, then you might have some idea how I felt when my young hunter, 13-year-old Mitch Heuple, lowered the boom on a 23-pound gobbler at 4:45 p.m. yesterday.

When that tom went down, I barked, "Pump it, safety on!" to Mitch, jumped up, ran to the flopping bird and let out a "Yeee-haa!" that carried the news to every turkey in two counties.

Then I remembered I had a radio in my pocket.

I sheepishly called Mitch's dad, Don, and told him we had a bird. Not that he was in any doubt. He had been sitting about 200 yards away, watching another field and fenceline, while we worked quickly but not altogether desperately to get Mitch a shot. I don't think I've ever seen a bigger grin on a grown man's face when Don hurried up to greet us, hug his son and join in the celebration.

"You we're running out of time," he said.

"All it takes is 20 minutes and a willing bird," I replied.

That, and almost 11 hours of close-but-not-quite.

Well, we did take a 3-hour break at 1:00 after a 7-hour marathon that gave us looks at maybe 8 different toms, a dozen jakes, another dozen hens, plus enough other assorted wildlife to fill half a zoo. In other words, another typical day in the turkey woods.


Our day began at 5:00 a.m. when we met at our assigned property. Friday night, I told them, a fired-up tom had triple-gobbled to my owl hooting at 7:15 in a strip of woods along the Milwaukee River. Friday morning, I had heard at least a half-dozen different gobblers sounding off in hills south of our field.

I had devised game plans for both set-ups, and we opted for a big oak in the corner of a field nearest the birds in the hills. As day broke, gobblers sounded off all around us. Don was laughing out loud at the commotion, and at the possibility so many toms represented.

We were in the game, as my friend Bill Wiese says.

Once the morning gobbling concert ceased, we began hearing hens yelping close by, but didn't get any gobblers to respond to my calling. A redtail sailed out of the woods from the southeast, landed in our oak and eyeballed our three decoys. I told Mitch to look up slowly, then I clucked a few times. The hawk looked down at us, sized up the situation and beat it across the field. I didn't want it messing up our chances.

Around 7:20 or so, a tom and hens answered my calls from the woods behind us, but they circled us to the southwest and came out into the field 150 yards away. The tom led a half-dozen hens straight east toward the river, ignoring our calls. Minutes later, Mitch spotted birds on the hillside where those had first appeared. Two more toms and another flock of hens came into the field where the first group had and followed their route to the river, again ignoring my calls.

Before we had a chance to decide whether to go after them, Mitch said, "There's some birds right over there," and pointed across the narrow field corner.

I looked and hissed "Don't move."

Three jakes were standing at the edge of the field about 60 yards away, looking in our direction. The rest of the gang filed up behind them, pushing them into the field, and in seconds there were more birds than I could count, all jakes and hens.

The lead jakes walked right up to our decoys and milled around nervously, as Mitch tried to ease his gun up and I whispered instructions. For a heartbeat or two, there was enough daylight between the birds to risk shooting, but Mitch held his fire and the group sauntered back out of range, then headed for the river on the same route as the first two flocks.

"I couldn't get my head down on the gun," Mitch confessed, as we debriefed on what had just happened.

"Don't worry about it," I told him. "That was a great practice run for later."

"Later" came not long after, when two toms stepped through a gap in the fenceline that leads to the river, about 15 yards from the tree I almost set up on. That has never happened to you, has it? They gobbled and strutted in response to my calls, but beelined east inthe same direction the other groups had gone.

By now, even your sister who lives in Manhattan would have detected a pattern. I had no good plan, however, to deal with it. The birds had all walked out of sight around a point of brush and now could be anywhere behind us, along the river in either direction or even across the river.

Mitch and I sneaked along the woods to the brushy point to see where they might have gone. The two lone toms were still in the field around the point, and they walked into the woods. I guessed they had seen me. The others were nowhere to be seen.

So, we rejoined Don at our oak and opted to eat a snack and sit tight, waiting to see if they would come back.

Oh, they sure did all right. A sandwich later, the field was suddenly full of turkeys. Four toms strutted, then started fighting, while a fifth tom stood alone in full display nearest the flock of hens. When the fight started, the two lone toms came running out of the woods to join in, and now there were six toms jumping into the air, spurs flying, wings beating and no doubt rattling their "fighting purrs" as they carried on. At 300 yards and downwind, we had a clear view, but the audio portion of the program was faint.

"Do they do that often?" Don asked.

"I'm sure they do, but I've never seen anything like that in 20 years of turkey hunting," I said.

As the toms chased each other around, we hoped the fight would work its way toward us. Instead, they gradually calmed down and filtered into the woods toward the river and disappeared. Not once did they pay any heed to my calling, although I threw everything at them before I gave up and just watched.

They had barely disappeared, when Don spotted several deer coming from the west. Six does and fawns ambled through the gap in the fenceline where the two toms had come from and crossed the field at a fast trot toward the river.

By now, we were shaking our heads at the show. I hoped Mitch didn't think this was a typical parade!

"Did I tell you the elephants are due to come though at 11:00?" I asked Don. At that point, I wouldn't have been surprised if they did.

After the commotion settled down, here came another tom, out of the strip of woods by the river. He was all alone, so I figured we had a chance at him. I hit my box call sparingly, and he s-l-o-w-l-y walked toward us. Never gobbled once. Never strutted. He took a good 20 minutes to come halfway across the field, then he turned east, walked around the brushy point and out of sight.

I figured he didn't like the jake decoy standing with our two hens. Later, back at the Kountry Keg, where our hunters gathered at the end of the day, Ted Fischer confirmed my impression. "Satellite bird," he said. "He probably got his butt kicked enough times that he avoids the other toms and gets a little action by sneaking around like that."

At any rate, I pulled the jake and one hen, and we sat it out for another hour, during which we talked to a gobbler and hen that came tantalyzingly close in the brush behind us, but left without showing themselves.

I was frustrated, but figured we had a good chance later in the afternoon or this morning. We picked up our gear and headed out for a much-needed break.

Speaking of which, to be continued....


9:03:03 AM    comment []

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